The Queen and I: Why Did I Live While Korryn Gaines Died?
On August 1, 2016, Korryn Gaines and her five-year-old son were shot by police, killing her and seriously injuring him. Less than two months later, on September 21st, the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office issued a press release stating that it had completed its review of the shooting. The press release announced that criminal charges were “not warranted” and would not be filed against any officers involved.
Gaines’s death — viewed by some as extra-judicial execution and by others as the inevitable consequence of her own actions — is one of a series of police shootings that have recently sparked outrage and unrest across the nation. In fact, as I wrote this, Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by police in Charlotte, North Carolina. This shooting sparked two nights of violent protest, which led to yet another death. And all of this while the nation was still reeling from the shootings of Terence Crutcher, Tyre King, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castille, not to mention the almost 800 others shot and killed by police so far in 2016.
The numbers are overwhelming and it is easy to become numb to yet another human being turned hashtag. In fact, the shooting of Korryn and Kodi Gaines seems already to have faded from the national psyche like a barely remembered bad dream. Did that really happen? We can’t quite believe it. We gladly forget it. I would have forgotten Gaines, too, were it not for the fact that a few details of her story correspond with a few details of my own.
Korryn Gaines and I were both twenty-three the morning police arrived to arrest us for failure to appear on misdemeanor traffic charges. We both resisted arrest. However, while I lived long enough to learn from my mistakes, Gaines did not. Police shot her dead that day. Why? The shared biographical details made me want to understand how our stories had ended so differently.
Today, I am a middle-aged woman with a family, a small business, and a mortgage. I pay any traffic tickets I get in my lumbering blue Volvo wagon promptly.
At twenty-three, however, I lived with my boyfriend and a semi-stray cat, worked the graveyard shift as a waitress at a local café, and was finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Texas. I drove my zippy red car way too fast and sported a rebellious, scoff-law attitude. As a result, I had racked up and failed to pay more than ten speeding tickets.
On the day officers came to serve a warrant for my arrest in connection with those unpaid tickets, I was sweeping the kitchen floor and listening to “Moondance.” I recall the weird juxtaposition of Van Morrison’s lyrics (Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance/ With the stars up above in your eyes) with the word SHERIFF emblazoned on a star across the side of the car pulling up in front of our duplex.
As soon as I realized that the sheriff’s deputies were there to arrest me, I panicked. I was a young woman in a tank top and shorts about to be placed into the custody of a group of men with guns. If you have not had bad experiences with authority figures or people who wield power over you, you may not understand this panicky feeling. On the other hand, if you have ever been mistreated by someone in authority, assaulted, raped, or otherwise overpowered, you will understand immediately how I felt.
All it took was that one word from my boyfriend, and I was out the back door and sprinting. At the same moment, a train rattled by on the tracks that formed the back boundary of our yard, cutting off my escape route. I burrowed into a large persimmon bush and hid there, sweating and terrified.
When the sheriff’s deputies came to the door — having seen me run — they explained to my boyfriend that they were there to serve a warrant and asked where I was. My boyfriend responded by telling them he didn’t know. They replied that they had seen me run out the back door. Furthermore, they said, they could now charge him with aiding and abetting a fugitive and me with resisting arrest.
In fact, they did neither. Nor did they call in a SWAT team or escalate the situation in any way. Instead, the officers calmly approached my hiding place and asked me to “Please come on out of there.” They then told me that I was under arrest and escorted me to the back of their car. They did not handcuff or otherwise restrain me. They were civil and helpful as they drove me to the city jail, explaining what I could expect once I arrived.
Compare my arrest to Gaines’s.
At twenty-three, Gaines was a full-time mom living in a suburban neighborhood outside Baltimore with her boyfriend and two young children. She had dropped out of Morgan State University when she became pregnant. Like me, she had failed to take care of misdemeanor traffic charges and that failure had resulted in a warrant being issued for her arrest.
I did not know her. However, based on what I have read and on her social media posts, Gaines — whose Instagram username was “shesyourmajesty”— was proud, opinionated, fashion-conscious, and devoted to her family. Like my 23-year-old self, she also seems to have had an anti-authoritarian bent, posting messages that expressed a sassy pride (They gone get the Black girl magic today. Whether they want it or not) and a rebellious streak (When they say you can’t. Then you have to). She also occasionally posted memes and videos that displayed a keen sense of injustice and awareness of historical violence against African Americans — and a willingness to take up arms to protect herself and her family from oppression.
Even more significantly, Gaines posted videos of her interactions with police, including the March traffic stop and a subsequent April trip to the courthouse. In these videos, Gaines is stubborn and confrontational. It is possible to imagine police found her attitude infuriating.
One of the final videos Gaines was able to post before Facebook deactivated her account shows a snippet of the August 1st standoff that ended in her death. In this video, the tidy interior of Gaines’s apartment is visible. A stroller and what appears to be a diaper bag sit in view. On the wall, a set of keys dangle from a peg. A gym bag perches on the arm of the sofa beside the front door, as if someone were about to leave for a morning workout. Gaines’s five-year-old, Kodi, can be heard whispering and sighing. The video also shows a dark figure in body armor and helmet, his white face barely visible beneath a protective shield, peering inside and pointing his semi-automatic rifle toward Gaines and her son.
According to court documents, at 9:10 a.m. on August 1, two Baltimore County police officers arrived at Gaines’s apartment to serve warrants to both Gaines and her boyfriend, Kareem Courtney. Courtney was charged with second-degree assault — also a misdemeanor — based on a June 28th domestic disturbance involving Gaines.
The officers announced their presence; knocked on Gaines’s door; and when nobody answered, went to the landlord to obtain a key. When they still couldn’t get in, the officers kicked in the door.
Having forced entry into her apartment, police could then see Gaines “sitting on the dining room floor.” They asked her to come to the door, but she refused. According to the officers, they then “entered the Apartment and observed the Female holding a Dark in color shotgun. The Female pointed the Dark in color shotgun at Officer [redacted] and instructed the Officers to leave. Officer [redacted] withdrew from the apartment and called for further back up.”
The officers subsequently requested additional warrants for Gaines’s arrest — this time for first- and second-degree assault, obstructing and hindering, and resisting arrest. They also called in a SWAT team.
So both of us — Korryn Gaines and I — panicked and resisted arrest. I fled on foot (as did Gaines’s boyfriend with their baby), while she stood her ground and reached for a weapon.
And while my panicked reaction was irrational — I had no reason to believe police might kill me — Gaines’s was not. As a black woman, she had ample reason to be afraid.
According to a Washington Post Database, in the first seven months of 2016, eight black women had already been shot and killed by police in the United States — Jessica Nelson-Williams, Deresha Armstrong, Kisha Arrone, Laronda Sweatt, India Beaty, Kisha Michael, Sahlah Ridgeway, and Janet Wilson. Gaines would be the ninth. Furthermore in just one month the previous summer, five black women, including Sandra Bland, had died in police custody.
So while I was scared at the prospect of being arrested, Gaines must have been in fear for her life. Here is an excerpt of conversation recorded between Gaines and her son that morning:
“Who is outside?”
“What are they trying to do?”
“They’re trying to kill us.”
When I first read news accounts of Gaines’s shooting, I wondered about this. Was her belief that police were trying to kill her grounded in more than the general atmosphere of violence and hostility between black people and police in Baltimore (and in the U.S. in general)? Or did Gaines believe that the officers had come to her home not only because of outstanding warrants but also for more personal reasons?
Curious about the normal procedure for serving misdemeanor warrants like those that officers originally went to Gaines’s apartment to serve, I called Maryland criminal defense attorney, Kush Arora, who specializes in disorderly conduct cases. (Based on the Baltimore County Police March Arrest Report, disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, was the most serious charge facing Gaines.)
According to Arora, the Maryland court system is so overloaded that warrants issued for misdemeanor charges will “never, or almost never, result in an officer showing up at your home. When it comes to bench warrants, I tell my clients that officers are not usually going to come out and arrest you on a misdemeanor.”
When I asked what types of charges would result in officers showing up on your doorstep to serve a bench warrant, Arora said, “Typically, when we see officers actually serving a bench warrant, it’s related to felony cases of violent crime.”
For weeks after the shooting, Baltimore County Police Department declined to release the names of the officers who went to serve the warrants, citing fears for their safety; however, the two officers have since been named in the wrongful death lawsuit brought by Gaines’s family. The standoff that began when they forced entry into Gaines’s apartment ended more than six hours later when a third officer shot and killed Gaines. By that time, dozens of police and tactical officers surrounded Gaines’s apartment. They had even drilled holes in a neighbor’s walls so that they could observe Gaines from every angle.
According to a press release issued by State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, when five-year-old Kodi went into the kitchen, followed by his mother, “the officers could no longer see what [Gaines] was doing with the shotgun nor could they always see the location of the child. This left officers at the door to the apartment vulnerable. Officer Ruby saw this transition and at this point he could only see her hair and the barrel of the shotgun. He saw Ms. Gaines was starting to raise the shotgun to a firing position toward the officers…. The gun was now pointed at the officers.” And it was then that Officer Ruby shot through the kitchen wall with an AR-15.
When Gaines returned fire, “Officer Ruby quickly swept the kitchen,” killing Korryn Gaines. Kodi was also seriously injured. The press release concludes with this sentence: “The bullet that struck Kodi in the cheek was an expanding bullet indicating it had passed through something before striking Kodi.”
I can’t stop thinking about this sentence. What did the bullet pass through before striking Kodi? Did it pass through the kitchen wall of his home, a pot of oatmeal on the stove, his mother?
And I can’t stop thinking about the fact that a day that began with two police officers arriving to serve warrants on misdemeanor charges ended with a third officer shooting blindly through a wall at a woman and five-year-old child, ultimately killing her and injuring the child. If officers at the door to the apartment were vulnerable, why not simply retreat to a safer position?
How did we get here?
The night I emerged from the city jail less than six hours after I had been arrested, I remember looking up at the stars and thanking them — my lucky stars. But it wasn’t lucky stars that meant the difference between life and death for me and Gaines.
Why did I live while she died?
Did the fact that Gaines had a gun and pointed it at police affect the outcome of events that day? Of course, it did. Did it also mean she had to die? Of course, it did not. After all, there are many ways to deescalate situations with armed suspects and many recent examples of people who pointed guns at police and were NOT shot.
And while I do not like guns and do not choose to own one, many Americans cling fiercely to their right to bear arms for exactly the reason that Gaines reached for her shotgun that day— to protect their homes and families from invasion by government forces they see as hostile and intrusive. Yet there seems to be a double standard operating in which white gun owners are viewed as exercising their Constitutional rights, while black gun owners are viewed as thugs. If Gaines died because she legally owned a gun and reached for it to protect herself and her family when two men kicked in her front door, the many 2nd Amendment advocates around the country should take note.
So if it was not her gun, what was it that meant the difference between life and death for me and Korryn Gaines?
Even after following Gaines’s story for months, requesting and reading related documents, court records, and press releases, and poring over statistics about police shootings, I don’t know the answer. Yet my experience suggests that again and again on the day I was arrested, police chose to deescalate and not use force. And court documents and other reliable evidence suggest that again and again on the day Gaines was shot, police chose to escalate and to use force. My gut tells me that we were treated differently because I am white and Gaines was black.
The study of thousands of use-of-force episodes from police departments across the nation has concluded what many people have long thought, but which could not be proved because of a lack of data: African-Americans are far more likely than whites and other groups to be the victims of use of force by the police, even when racial disparities in crime are taken into account.
To summarize: Police seem to have gone out of their way to arrest Gaines on misdemeanor traffic charges. They kicked in her front door and forced entry into her home. In the subsequent standoff, a police officer fired first. The officer shot blindly through a wall behind which was not only an armed woman, but also an innocent bystander — a five-year-old child. Police killed the woman; the child was seriously injured.
Yet the state’s attorney has declared that charges are “not warranted” against any officers involved.
I believe that further review is called for. That is why I stand with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and The Baltimore Sun in calling for an independent investigation into the shooting of Korryn Gaines.
I wonder what Gaines might have become and achieved had she been given the chance to live. What if police had allowed her mother to speak with her that day? What if they had built trust rather than eroding it by sending texts from her mother’s redirected phone number, pretending to be “mom”? What if they had simply backed off and waited her out?
Perhaps she would have channeled the energy coiled in her tiny frame into activism in the vibrant Baltimore social justice community. Or gone back to Morgan State University and gotten her degree. I can see her as a historian, a poet, or a teacher. I can see her — having grown wiser from her experiences — reminding her teenage son Kodi to never, ever disrespect or run from the police.
God Bless Korryn Gaines. May She Rest in Peace.
If you would like to support the family of Korryn Gaines, please consider buying a print of the artwork, “Korryn Shandawn Gaines,” by Benjamin Jancewicz (@benjancewicz), that appears at the beginning of this essay. All profits from the sale of this piece are donated directly to the family of Korryn Gaines.
You can also donate directly to the Gaines family’s GoFundMe.
If you would like to read more about Korryn Gaines, please see the detailed report on newly obtained investigative files published in the The Baltimore Sun and recently published story about the acquittal of Kareem Courtney on drug charges. For more on Medium, please see:
- “For Korryn Gaines,” by Son of Baldwin
- “The Myth of the Respectable Victim: Korryn Gaines and the Invisible Trauma of Racist Terror,” by Linda Luu
- “Police won’t be charged for killing Korryn Gaines and shooting her 5-year-old son,” by Kira Lerner
- “Being a Black Disabled Woman Is An Act of Defiance: Remembering #KorrynGaines,” by Vilissa Thompson
- “One Way to Wake Up, Say Korryn Gaines’s Name,” by Robin Lawrie
- “Korryn Gaines’ Black Life Mattered, Too,” by Benjamin YoungSavage.
I am a freelance writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. My essay “The Gift of Privacy: How Edward Snowden Changed the Way I Parent,” appeared on Salon.com in July.
Follow me on Twitter @anniehnet.